Lonnie Leithold

Lonnie Leithold

Sector: Academia

Field: Education

Occupation: Sedimentologist

My name is Lonnie Leithold, and I work at North Carolina State University in the department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and I am a professor here and I’m also co-director of our graduate programs in the department. I am a sedimentologist, and I’ve applied that in all kinds of different ways in my career.  I started out my career working on reconstructing ancient environments from sedimentary rocks, and for over twenty years now, I’ve been working on Holocene sediments and I spent quite a lot of time studying understanding carbon burial in sedimentary environments, and more recently I’ve gotten involved in research in lakes largely focused in paleoseismology, looking at records of earthquakes.

What inspired you to become a geoscientist?

I grew up in Chicago in the flatlands. I was lucky on a couple of counts; one was I had a grandfather who was just a very curious person; he didn’t have any higher education but he really was interested in everything in the world.  He took my sister and I to museums almost every weekend, and he instilled that curiosity upon me.

I was sort of drawn to science in general; it kind of just fit the way my brain works.  When I was in high school, this was in the 70’s and folks were experimenting with different kinds of education, and I was in what was called a “free school” where I could pursue my own interests so I got interested in geology then as well.  I was lucky to travel a little bit when I was in high school to go to mountainous areas, including in the U.S., and I spent some time in Israel, and I got really inspired to try to understand the earth.

The bottom line is I had opportunities to be inspired and pursue things I was interested in, but I think it starts with my grandfather.

What skills and knowledge – including educational and technical training – have been of key importance to both securing and successfully doing your work?

I read the record of the past from looking at sediments, so that includes understanding the physical processes that are responsible for moving sediments, in other words sediment transport, and I received a great training in that in graduate school.  I learned some about organic geochemistry along the way although I’m not really applying that too much right now.

The most important skill that I learned was to be a very careful observer and pose hypotheses and test them by whatever means I can come up with.

Did you have any mentors helped guide your career path and what was some pivotal advice that they imparted to you?

One of the most important mentors I had was my thesis advisor Jody Bourgeois.  She’s a very careful observer and she taught me to be very hard on myself, basically to be very critical in my interpretations, constantly being self-critical and having to justify my conclusions on solid ground.

How do you engage with your peers when communicating your science? How does that differ when you are engaging with the public?

There certainly are the formal channels, publishing and getting some feedback on what you publish and presenting at meetings and so on. There are also informal ways, you know, right now, my strongest collaborators are right down the hall, and we regularly sit down and talk about where the research is going and look at results and mull over the possibilities, it’s an ongoing questioning of your observations and how you interpret them.

In terms of the public, you tend to simplify things and you tend to gloss over some of the uncertainties when you talk to the public because you’re trying to present a coherent picture. Science is, by nature, a constant question, and sometimes the public doesn’t want questions, they want answers. You tend to cut out the middle stuff.

When types of conferences do you share your work at?

Usually I go to Geological Society of America meetings, and depending on what kinds of projects I’m involved in, I like to go to smaller conferences.  I recently went to a workshop on continental drilling.  I was involved in several large projects, NSF MARGINS was a project I was involved in that involved smaller conferences. I was involved in the educational aspects of the MARGINS program.

I was involved in one project where we created lessons that went along with the MARGINS research program so I worked with a few others to come up with mini-lessons and they’re online actually now.  This was an NSF-cosponsored effort where we came together and tried to come up with activities that we could make lessons that other folks could implement based on the research.

The lessons were targeting an undergraduate audience. I was part of this MARGINS source-to-sinks project, basically tracing sentiments from sources in mountaintops down to the deep sea, so I worked with a group of four. I think in total there were thirty or forty different people doing this because MARGINS had many different aspects.  But the four of us, we had three or four meetings where we came together to work on this.

As co-director of Graduate Programs for the Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department at NC State, what are the most common questions you students have about entering the job market and what advice do you give them?

It depends what level you’re talking about. Master’s students, many of them are place-focused, they moved here to go to grad school here and they want to find some position that’s in this area.  They’ll come and ask me what do I know about consulting companies in the area.

Ph.D. students, we’ve had some that go into academic positions and industry and state government. Ph.D. students tend to have quality of life questions.  They see their professors struggling to get funding, and manage the workload, and have families, as a woman that’s a question that female grad students particularly want to know about.  How do you manage your career? How do you find a balance in your life.

I can’t say that I’m the perfect example, but I usually say to students, “I’m upbeat, you can do it! But it’s a challenge, and you have to decide for yourself, have to find a balance for yourself.”  To be honest, I don’t think my career’s as high-powered as I might have envisioned it when I was thirty years old.  I made choices along the way, and I chose to have family and put a lot of my effort into teaching.  I’ve maintained a research career, but I’m by no means a superstar in my field.  I don’t think that’s because I’m not smart or not capable, I think I made choices and students need to be clear about what choices they’re making.  You can make different choices at different times in your career.

Right now, I’ve gotten into some administrative duties and I feel good about that I feel like I’m contributing in that area as well as in my research and in teaching.

What thoughts do you have for students/young professionals looking for a job like yours and what pitfalls might they avoid?  What is something that you wish you had known before embarking on your career?

I think it’s really important as a graduate student to develop tools, have a strong foundation in some aspect of your science so that you have a niche, so you might want to develop an expertise in isotope geochemistry or sediment transport modeling or something that you can apply to a variety of problems especially early in your career.  That really gives you a way to say I’m an expert in this tool.  It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a problem that you’re really driven towards, but I think you really need to work on being good at applying tools.  I wish I had developed those a little more as a grad school.

A second piece of advice that I would give, that may be obvious but, science is a group activity.  Building relationships in science is very important.  I think it’s harder for women starting out.  I felt several roadblocks at points because of not being as readily encompassed into the group quite as easily as men were.  I kept pushing in certain areas, but I think that can be hard.  Depends on where you come from, what grad program you came from, and what kind of connections can be made.  But I tell students now, even when they’re just starting out as masters students coming into our department, “Look around you, your cohort is really important.” I still have strong relationships with folks I was in grad school with.  That social aspect of a science career is important.

What inspired you to join in on the March for Science?

I am really disturbed by some of the things that are happening now.  As the graduate student co-director, we have students that are doing internships at the EPA and they’re worried about those getting eliminated. We have students that are funded by Sea Grant; those programs are getting eliminated.  I’m worried about funding for research.

Even after all these years, I am still somewhat poetic about science. I think it’s a beautiful way of finding truth: it’s inquiry, it’s finding facts, being a careful observer of whatever data you have, and being rigorously honest about interpreting those data to the best of your ability as a human being—because human beings tend to see what they want to see. I am really worried that we’re in this climate where people don’t want to know about facts, they just want to push what they want the conclusion to be.

I think it’s important to show up and to show that you’re a scientist and that you think that science is an important endeavor in our society. I did go to the Women’s March in Raleigh, but I didn’t go to D.C., but I do feel compelled to make the drive for the March for Science.  It’s really important.

When I talk to young scientists, I tell them that you really have to be persistent. It’s all about persistence, and we can’t give up.  Humanity has come a long way, and hopefully, this current landscape won’t set us back too far.  But we have to be persistent about it.